Chennai, circa 1990. Excitement in the air. Muhammad Ali, the legendary boxer was splashed across the pages of most city newspapers. It even overshadowed the political news. I wanted to interview him. As a freelancer for a national sports weekly, I had a good case.
I telephoned the five-star hotel where the legend was staying and waited to be connected to his manager. He asked me to come by. I grabbed my cousin, Ravi, to double up as the photographer, and we rushed off on my motorcycle.
As we waited in the lobby, I began to frame my questions. Twenty minutes later, we were summoned to the fourth floor. I was so excited that I ran up the stairs, instead of taking the elevator.
Ali’s manager ushered us into the very large suite. The great man walked in slowly. The tell-tale signs of Parkinson’s disease were clear. But though his large, powerful hands trembled a wee bit, the handshake was very firm. Still, his speech was a bit slurred and he spoke softly, forcing me to strain my ears to catch all his words.
Ali, born Cassius Clay, a Christian had converted to Islam, in the 1964. He was a strong proponent of his new faith and was deeply involved in charitable work across the continents, especially after his retirement from boxing in 1980. His foundation had been building schools and orphanages in developing nations. India was one of the beneficiaries. On this 1990 tour of India, he was visiting the centres supported by his foundation in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. “It is the will of Allah," he said. "I am a mere messenger. A servant doing his job.”
He was all praise for his adopted religion. “Islam offered me self esteem," he said. "Nobody calls me nigger anymore. They began to respect me and the Islamic world adopted me as one of their own. The Koran has taught me to help the poor and the needy. This has given me immense satisfaction and peace of mind.”
He spoke briefly about his childhood: “America was a different place back then. The blacks were routinely discriminated against. I was called a nigger almost every day. Even after I came back with the Olympic gold medal, I sometimes found it difficult to get a meal in a restaurant.”
At the mention of Joe Frazier and George Foreman, he smiled wickedly. “Good boxers. Good men,” he said. We speak about the famous "Rumble in the Jungle" bout of September 1974 against George Foreman in Kinshasha, Zaire, where Ali regained his world heavyweight title. “George was a strong boxer," he said. "I had to use my intelligence. I let him hit me for a long time. That tired him out and then I went after him. I am The Greatest, remember!”
A street fighter
He also fondly remembered Joe Frazier. “Joe was a street fighter," Ali said. "He was not tall, but made up with his hard-hitting.” Recalling their "Thrilla in Manila" bout of October 1975, Ali said, “We fought till the 14th round and almost killed each other in the process. Joe’s trainer stopped the bout, after Joe’s eye shut down completely.” The respect Ali had for Frazier was best demonstrated when he travelled several thousand miles to attend his rival's funeral in Philadelphia in 2011.
It was evident that Ali liked India. “I love the people of Kerala and Tamil Nadu," he said. "They are soft spoken, hard working and courteous. India is a special country. It has given the world, a great leader like Mahatma Gandhi.”
It was also clear during the course of the interview that the Parkinson’s disease had not dampened any of Ali’s mischief. When Ravi got too close for a photograph, Ali jabbed the air repeatedly, sending my cousin scurrying to the end of the room. The great man posed graciously with us, as his manager shot the photograph of a lifetime!
Rest in peace, The Greatest.